'This a positive thing:' Advocate says mental health bill is great first step

    Iowa State Capitol (Photo: Caroline Cummings)<p>{/p}

    The House approved a bipartisan bill Tuesday that would expand access to mental health treatment in Iowa, a measure hailed by mental health advocates as a step forward in the right direction.

    "This is a positive thing," said Peggy Huppert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health's (NAMI) Iowa chapter. "Most veterans of the statehouse have the common belief that if a bill passes unanimously, it doesn't do anything. But that's not true in this case. This bill does do things."

    The bill advanced in a 98-0 vote Tuesday and the Iowa Senate is expected to pass it and move it on to Governor Kim Reynolds' desk for signature; she has voiced her support.

    "This bill is creating a system that is much more community based so we really have something where there is the support, where we can catch people in crisis as they are escalating and intervene," House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said. "I think this will go a long way to create a better environment for people with mental health issues."

    Huppert was part of a work group that worked over the interim between last session and this session to discuss solutions to fix Iowa's mental health system's flaws. She says that the group made five recommendations for the legislature, all of which were included in this bill.

    "It was a package deal. Because if you only did one of them, it wouldn't work. You have to have a pipeline otherwise people get stuck, which is what is happening right now," Huppert said.

    The expansive mental health omnibus bill would establish six "access centers" across the state for people suffering from mental health crises but don't need hospitalization. The centers would offer crisis stabilization but would also asses patients and refer them to the appropriate level of care.

    The centers would be 24/7, secure, "no reject, no eject" facilities where law enforcement can drop people off or family members can take someone who is in crisis, Huppert said.

    The legislation would also increase the number of "asserted community treatment," or "ACT", teams from 10 that are already in Iowa to 22. These teams are multi-disciplinary, usually with a psychiatrist at the helm and they are in constant communication with people with serious needs in order to prevent them from needing hospitalization.

    These teams make sure people take their medications and make it to their doctor appointments, for example.

    It would also establish intensive residential treatment facilities, which would allow someone to be in a long-term, supportive housing environment.

    The bill would pinpoint certain hospitals as specialty care hospitals to send people with complex needs.

    "Hospitals have trauma centers or cancer centers, which signifies they have a specialty in that area. We don't have that for psychiatry," Huppert said, which is why the work group suggested this be worked into the bill.

    The establishment of one, 24/7 statewide crisis line will be a huge asset "right off the bat," Huppert said. Right now, that doesn't exist. Anyone in the state could call for adults or children and could be referred to programs and services in their area.

    Huppert says all of these elements in the bill put Iowa on the right path forward.

    “It’s very significant but the other good thing about this bill is that it puts some things in place to say ok we need to study this and we need to do something about that looking to the future."

    The bill is estimated to cost the state's General Fund just over $876,000 in the 2019 budget year and nearly $6 million in fiscal year 2020, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency report.

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